Researchers at West Virginia University’s Brain Injury Institute have determined that former WVU and Bengal Wide Receiver Chris Henry was living with CTE, an acute from of brain damage now known to occur in athletes of collision sports. I find it pretty terrifying that a man of 28 could develop such extensive brain damage. Take into account he was a receiver, they take their fair share of punishment over the middle, but it has to be nothing compared to say, an every down running back. So what does it all mean?
The brain is one area that we as humans have not made all that many strides in understanding. This is through no lack of effort, the brain is just that freaking complicated. In order to spot this particular type of brain damage, one has to take a slice of the brain tissue, stain it with a special compound, then look at the way the cells realign. To get this test done, you have to be dead. Needless to say that makes it pretty difficult to diagnose.
Others that have developed the condition suffered from a wide variety of mental issues, perhaps the most famous being Mike Webster, one of my childhood heroes. Without going over his rap sheet, Chris Henry had problems. Probably the most talented WR I have ever seen in person, he did not seem to be able to control his emotions on or off the field. He would celebrate a triumph by, oh I dunno, flipping the bird to the Rutgers student section.
Could his behavior be explained by his posthumous diagnosis? The sad thing is that we will most likely never know. My real question is how many other athletes perhaps suffer from the same behavioral/brain problems, but were not quite as talented as Chris Henry and thus have fallen through the cracks into the realms of crime and drug abuse? The way the research is currently going we may one day see football, as it has been played for the last 50 years to be a cruel and barbaric kind of gladiatorial game, where there is a winner at first, but overall everyone loses.
As the sheer size and speed of athletes continues to increase, we really need to take a look at ways to protect the young men that play our modern national past time. Perhaps its time to look at the suits of armor the players wear today and really think about how much they protect vs how much damage they do. Australian Rules Football, a collision sport in its own right, has far fewer concussions and head injuries than the NFL, and they wear no pads. Its said without the armor, players are more aware of exactly how they are going in for a tackle, if they dive in head first its probably lights out for both the tackler and ball handler.
Really what gets me the most about this whole situation is exactly how talented Henry was, without the brain trauma, what could have been? It does not excuse his transgressions, but it could well be a damn good explanation. His size, explosiveness, and ability would have most assuredly led him to Canton. Now we are left with only slices of his brain, hopefully they can start to open a window into a problem that has been with us for a long time, but only now starting to be fully realized.
RIP my brother, Once a Mountaineer, Always a Mountaineer